ALBANY, N.Y. – New York is adopting new standards for the treatment of prisoners held in solitary confinement in local jails, including mandated time outside their cell and increased reporting requirements in an effort to prevent prisoner mistreatment.
The changes, issued Tuesday by the state's Commission on Correction, come amid heightened scrutiny of solitary confinement and its psychological effects on inmates.
Under the new rules, inmates held in isolation in local jails must be provided with at least four hours outside of their cells each day. In addition, local jail officials would have to notify the state when a prisoner who is pregnant or under the age of 18 is placed in solitary, or whenever an inmate is held in seclusion for more than a month.
"Amid public reports of misuse and abuse of solitary confinement, these new standards will inject much needed uniformity, accountability and transparency in the process for all local jails," said Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who pushed for the changes.
New York already is working to reduce the use of solitary in state correctional facilities under a class action settlement in the case of an inmate who alleged he was improperly placed in solitary. The New York Civil Liberties Union also sued to challenge the state's use of isolation. The new standards will only apply to local city and county jails.
The changes are a positive step but don't go far enough, according to Jack Beck of the Correctional Association of New York, an organization that advocates for prisoner welfare. Beck's group supports legislation that would limit solitary confinement in state and local facilities to 15 days unless an inmate is sent to a special rehabilitation unit, where he or she would receive special treatment to address their behavior. The bill, which didn't receive a vote last year, would completely ban the isolation of young, elderly, pregnant and mentally ill inmates.
"We have quite a ways to go," he said.
Estimates are that as many as 100,000 inmates are held in isolation throughout the country. Some 4,000 people are held in solitary confinement at any given time in New York state. Federal numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicate that nearly 20 percent of state and federal prisoners across the nation have served some time in isolation, and that 4.4 percent of all prison inmates are in solitary on an average day.
States have increasingly taken a second look at the practice, which advocates for prison reform say often amounts to psychological torture, leaving inmates at greater risk of depression, anxiety, paranoia, post-traumatic stress and suicide. They also note the high costs of solitary compared to housing a prisoner in the general population and point to studies showing that isolation increases the chances of an inmate reoffending upon release.
The laws regarding solitary confinement vary throughout the nation. More than a dozen states have enacted restrictions or outright bans on the use of isolation. New York, California and several other states prohibit or limit the placement of juveniles in isolation. Many states also have laws regulating conditions in solitary.